If you've ever had people put their hands on your head and shoulders and pray over you, then you know what it is like, sometimes, to read the words some of you write to me.
Caleb has been reading a great many history books. Last night he asked if I have ever been beaten with a whip. Not thinking, I told him I have been beaten with a belt, but not a whip. He was suddenly sad and quiet. "Really?" It was a wounded voice. I got down close to him, so that I could feel his breath on my face. "I will never do that to you," I whispered. "I know," he said.
Sometimes as a parent you feel like a wall. One side of you is hard chipped stone. The side facing these little ones is smoothed, its cracks spackled as best you can manage. Sometimes your child will run a finger along one of those cracks, and when he does this you know you can go on standing, no matter the weight, until he is strong and ready to beat back the world with his own muscle and bone and faith.
The outside of the wall that you are is always cold, but the inside, this is where there is warmth, because of them. Last night I supervised Eli as he practiced "Frère Jacques" on the violin. We don't have the words, only the music, and so when he asked me to sing it I had to improvise, because neither my childhood nor seven years of French seem to have taken in any wholesome way:
Some French words I don't know
Some French words I don't know
How 'bout you?
How 'bout you?
Eli giggled. I like when he giggles, because he is my wistful child.
Isaac is rarely wistful, but he knows that he has exasperated me with the constant waking. It seems I'm not the only one in the house who can't sleep. Last night, instead of coming to my bed, he went into my bathroom and shut the door. I opened the door to find him curled up on the floor. I picked him up and he settled his cheek on my shoulder. I carried him through the dark house, praying that he won't have nightmares, that he comes to me because he misses me, and not because he is haunted by something on the other side of sleep.
I placed him on his bed and tucked the sheet around him. He looked up at me, his fuzzy lamb held tight to his chest, and he smiled. It was a peace-filled smile. I kissed him, and he closed his eyes, and he was asleep before I left his room. His sleep, like that smile, was peace-filled.
Sunday night brought a nightmare, one I used to have as a child. In this nightmare you are awake, it seems, and you can see the bedroom as it will be when you finally do scream or gasp yourself from sleep: black and gray shadows, the soft frail light of the moon or perhaps a streetlight trickling through a gap in the window shade, even your hand rising from the bed, weakly pushing or pointing at the presence that you can't see but which you can feel as it approaches. In this dream there is always a sound; sometimes it is a growl, or a harsh laugh; once it was a lion roaring. This time it was three loud knocks, as if the presence wanted permission to enter.
You try to scream in this nightmare because you know the dark thing is coming, but you are breathing syrup. You can feel it draw near, and sometimes it brings a shadow, but other times everything looks the same, which is somehow worse, because the feel of it makes your skin shrivel, and you think that if only you could see it then perhaps you could scream and then you could wake up.
Then I did wake up, only this sense of something dark and malicious didn't lessen, and for the first time since I was a child, I had to keep myself from screaming even after I was awake. I closed my eyes and whimpered all the names of God I could remember, thinking the sound of them might drive it away, this darkness that forgot it is supposed to depart when I wake. The names didn't work, and so I stood from the bed, shivering and electric, and left the bedroom for fear that if I lay there another moment I really would scream.
When I was a boy and I dreamt this, sometimes I wouldn't wake, and the presence would lift me from my bed, and carry me through the dark house. It was always dark, everything dark, and I would try to twist and scream but I was always paralyzed, which is how a creature about to be devoured by a spider must feel. I used to believe that if I went to sleep in the tightest possible ball, then the nightmares wouldn't come. I would wake sore and stiff, but safe passed over.
I don't remember when I stopped sleeping that way, or why the nightmares stopped. For the longest time I was afraid to go into a dark room, because in some of my dreams that's what would happen, I would walk into a dark room and then all the lights in the house and the world would extinguish, and then it would come for me, that darkness blacker than the absence of light. Eventually I was able to go into dark rooms, and then I forgot the nightmares for a time, though every few years they come for me.
Sometimes I wonder if there is something buried beneath my skin, and if this is how it tries to escape. Maybe all those years of curling myself into a ball was actually holding it in. But as I lay in that place between a dream and sleep, first trying to scream and then trying not to scream, I felt like prey, not a cage. Maybe things inside can devour us, so that we become the Ouroboros, feeding forever on ourselves. Sometimes I worry that the writing causes this, when I go into places that are best left sealed like tombs. In The Book of Nightmares, Galway Kinnell writes:
learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones.
I wonder if I will ever look full in the face that darkness that sometimes comes in a nightmare, and if the terror of it will melt my bones. I slept in a ball last night, my wife's arm around me. She knows that her presence sometimes keeps the nightmares at bay. I will sleep in a ball again tonight. Gradually, in days or perhaps a week, I will sleep like a man who isn't waiting for something to return for him.
Until it does. Then I will whisper the names of God, and pray that they are enough, and that whatever haunts me will only ever come to my room, to my side of the bed. You can endure anything as a parent, I am learning, because even in the worst of it you are grateful that it is you.